Why are we talking today about the West Bank and the “Palestinian question”? How did Israel get into a situation where it is reviled internationally as an “occupier” and accused of a refusal to trade “land for peace”?
Prior to June 1967, Israel did not “occupy” any Arab land and did not seek to expand its territory. Israelis were not talking about populating Judea and Samaria or establishing “Greater Israel.” Similarly, Palestinians were not calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which was controlled by Jordan, or in the Gaza Strip, which was ruled by Egypt.
Since declaring independence in May 1948, Israelis have dreamed of living in peace with their neighbors and consistently expressed their desire to negotiate with the Arabs to resolve their differences. In an address to the UN General Assembly on October 10, 1960, Foreign Minister Golda Meir challenged Arab leaders to meet with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded on October 15, claiming that Israel was trying to deceive the world, and reiterating that his country would never recognize the Jewish State.
Meanwhile, Syria used the Golan Heights, which tower 3,000 feet above the Galilee, to shell Israeli farms and villages. Syria’s attacks grew more frequent in 1965 and 1966, while Nasser’s rhetoric became increasingly belligerent: “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand,” he said on March 8, 1965. “We shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood.”
While Nasser continued to make speeches threatening war, Arab terrorist attacks grew more frequent. In 1965, 35 raids were conducted against Israel. In 1966, the number increased to 41. In just the first four months of 1967, 37 attacks targeted Israel.
Meanwhile, Syria’s attacks on Israeli kibbutzim from the Golan Heights provoked a retaliatory strike on April 7, 1967, during which Israeli planes shot down six Syrian MiGs. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union — which had been providing military and economic aid to both Syria and Egypt — gave Damascus information alleging a massive Israeli military buildup in preparation for an attack. Despite Israeli denials, Syria decided to invoke its defense treaty with Egypt.
On May 15, Israel’s Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops stationed along the Golan Heights were prepared for battle.
Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force, stationed in the Sinai since 1956, to withdraw on May 16. Without bringing the matter to the attention of the General Assembly, as his predecessor had promised, Secretary-General U Thant complied with the demand. After the withdrawal of the UNEF, the Voice of the Arabs proclaimed (May 18, 1967):
As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.
An enthusiastic echo was heard on May 20 from Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad:
Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united....I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.
On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat. This blockade cut off Israel’s only supply route with Asia and stopped the flow of oil from its main supplier, Iran. The following day, President Johnson condemned the blockade and tried, unsuccessfully, to organize an international flotilla to test it.
Nasser was fully aware of the pressure he was exerting to force Israel’s hand. The day after the blockade was set up, he said defiantly: “The Jews threaten to make war. I reply: Welcome! We are ready for war.”
Nasser challenged Israel to fight almost daily. “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight,” he said on May 27. The following day, he added: “We will not accept any...coexistence with Israel...Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel....The war with Israel is in effect since 1948.”
The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel...to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.
President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq joined in the war of words: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear — to wipe Israel off the map.” On June 4, Iraq joined the military alliance with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The Arab rhetoric was matched by the mobilization of Arab forces. Approximately 250,000 troops (nearly half in Sinai), more than 2,000 tanks and 700 aircraft surrounded Israel.
By this time, Israeli forces had been on alert for three weeks. The country could not remain fully mobilized indefinitely, nor could it allow its sea-lane through the Gulf of Aqaba to be interdicted. Israel’s best option was to strike first. On June 5, the order was given to attack Egypt. Jordan then attacked the Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Netanya ignoring a personal message to King Hussein from Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol to refrain from hostilities.
The Soviet Union was supplying massive amounts of arms to the Arabs. Simultaneously, the armies of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria were contributing troops and arms to the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian fronts. Israel’s principal arms supplier at the time, France, imposed an embargo on arms shipments. The United States, which had warned Israel that if it chose to fight it would have to go it alone, also stopped all arms deliveries to the region.
After just six days of fighting, Israeli forces broke through the enemy lines and were in a position to march on Cairo, Damascus and Amman. A ceasefire was invoked on June 10. The speed with which Israel devastated the might of the entire Arab world shocked the world and humiliated the Arabs. The psychological impact was significant and lasting. Israelis came out of the war with a false sense of security and their military prowess that would come back to haunt them in 1973. The shame felt by the Arabs would compel their leaders to prepare for the chance to exact revenge and regain their honor.
Israel’s victory came at a very high cost. In storming the Golan Heights, 115 Israeli soldiers perished — roughly the number of Americans killed during Operation Desert Storm. Altogether, Israel lost twice as many men — 777 dead and 2,586 wounded — in proportion to her total population as the U.S. lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam. Had Israel waited for the Arabs to strike first, as it did in 1973, the cost would certainly have been much higher and victory could not have been assured.
Following the cease-fire, the Israeli government immediately expressed a desire to negotiate a peace agreement with its neighbors. Arab leaders met in Khartoum and provided their answer, declaring there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.”
In the course of defending itself against Jordanian forces, Israeli troops reunited Jerusalem and captured the West Bank. Israel also gained control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Overall, Israel’s territory grew by a factor of three and incorporated more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians — most of whom were hostile to the government. Ultimately, more than 60,000 Palestinians of the approximately 325,000 who fled during the fighting (these were Jordanian citizens who moved from one part of what they considered their country to another to avoid being caught in the cross fire) were allowed to return.
The war also had religious significance. Under Jordanian rule, Jews and many Christians were forbidden from entering the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the site of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and many Christian shrines. After capturing the city, Israel discovered the Jordanians had desecrated many holy places, synagogues and cemeteries. After the unification of Jerusalem, each religious group was granted administration over their holy sites and the city was made accessible to people of all faiths.
The unwillingness of any Arab state to make peace left Israel with no choice but to hold onto those territories it had captured until the Arabs were prepared to negotiate a settlement. In the meantime, the government made every effort to make their occupation as benign as possible, though it recognized that the nation’s security needs required that it restrict some Palestinian rights.
On November 22, 1967, the international community laid the foundation for future peace negotiations. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied” in 1967 in return for “the termination of all claims or states of belligerency.” The framers of Resolution 242 recognized that territorial adjustments were needed because the previous armistice lines had proven indefensible. Prior to the war, at its narrowest point, Israel was just 9 miles wide. Consequently, the framers of the resolution deliberately left open the question of how much territory Israel should relinquish in exchange for peace. By leaving out the words “all” or “the” when referring to the disputed territories, they acknowledged the need to make adjustments in the final borders that would allow Israel and the other states in the region “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Every Arab leader who has subsequently been willing to make peace has received both land and peace from Israel. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat demonstrated the courage and vision to accept Israel, the leaders of Israel responded by making peace and withdrawing from the vast Sinai desert that had provided a valuable strategic buffer. Israel also gave up military bases, oil fields and evacuated Jewish communities.
Israel also offered to grant autonomy to the Palestinians, which was less than the full independence they demanded, but a step that would likely have led to statehood. The Palestinians rejected the offer and continued to pursue a strategy based on terror.
Many Israelis hoped that an agreement could be reached to return control over most of the West Bank to Jordan, but King Hussein was too weak to make a deal and faced widespread opposition in the Arab world, which had never recognized his 19-year occupation of the area. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) became the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians,” negotiations over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza (which Egypt did not want back as part of the treaty with Israel) was separated from the relationship between Israel and Jordan. It took another 15 years after Egypt made peace with Israel before King Hussein was willing to negotiate an agreement. Israel again responded with concessions.
In 1993, Israel reached an apparent breakthrough with the Palestinians and was prepared to withdraw from most of the disputed territories and allow the Palestinians to establish a state in exchange for peace. The Oslo agreement collapsed, however, when the Palestinians failed to fulfill their obligation to stop terror attacks. Still, Israel withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and nearly half of the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made another effort to trade land for peace when he met with President Bill Clinton and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000. Barak was prepared to give up all of Gaza, 97% of the West Bank, dismantle most settlements and allow the Palestinians to establish a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But Arafat said no.
Israel gave the Palestinians yet another opportunity to prove they were interested in peace when it evacuated the entire Gaza Strip in 2005. Nothing has prevented the Palestinians from creating all of the trappings of a state in Gaza. Had they done so and demonstrated they were interested in coexistence with Israel by stopping the violence, Israelis undoubtedly would be interested in negotiating a compromise in the West Bank. Instead chaos and ongoing attacks against Israel have caused most Israelis to regret the disengagement and to resist calls for future concessions until a new Palestinian leadership emerges that is interested in peace.
Meanwhile, Israel has negotiated the outline of an agreement with the Syrians that would result in the return of most, if not all of the Golan Heights. Once again, the obstacle to an agreement is that Israel is offering land while Syria is unwilling to give peace in exchange.
Israel has given up approximately 94% of the territories won in the 1967 defensive war. So the dispute today is over only 6% of that territory and Israel has already said it is prepared to give up most of that.
After the victory in the Six-Day War, Israelis hoped they had convinced their neighbors that Israel was a permanent fixture in the Middle East. Now, 40 years and five wars later, many Israelis doubt they will ever be accepted in the region, especially as radical Islam grows stronger and its adherents explicitly call for Israel’s destruction and strive to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Still, despite never enjoying a day of peace in the last four decades, the people of Israel continue to hope for “peace now” and to look forward to a day when Palestinian and other Arab leaders demonstrate the courage and vision of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein and heed the words of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”